3 Tips for Parenting to Promote Boys’ Positive Body Image

3 Tips for Parenting to Promote Boys’ Positive Body Image

What is body image? Body image is the perception of one’s body and related thoughts and beliefs.

Below, I discuss this topic, particularly how it relates to boys, with Charlotte Markey—a Psychology Today blogger, author, professor of psychology, and founding director of the health sciences center at Rutgers University.

Alli: Charlotte, as you reflect on your past few years as a body image researcher, what is one thing that you have personally learned that surprised you?

Charlotte: The more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know! After studying body image and eating behaviors for 25+ years, I still feel that these are complex, interesting, personal, and sociocultural issues. Body image concerns affect everyone. Concerns may differ from person to person and manifest differently at different times in our lives, but they affect us all.

Alli: Yes, so many people. You mention sociocultural influences. Do you have any idea about how “body image issues” evolved into what we know them as today?

Charlotte: Appearance dissatisfaction and the desire to use our appearance to impress others are as old as time. The means by which we try to alter our appearance changes as trends in what we believe to be beautiful change. And there are most definitely “trends.” For example, in high society culture, it used to be that a pale skin tone was believed to be beautiful, and powder was used to lighten the skin. For several decades now, a suntan has been viewed as attractive. Further, for women, large breasts and a large rear end were not always considered desirable. These days, cosmetic surgery is increasingly used to enhance these body parts.

Alli: Got it. And it’s so funny how the brain works! As I was reading the above, I could hear my thoughts: “You have that. Nope, don’t have that.” Thankfully, I’ve done so much work on self-acceptance that I know the thoughts are just the brain organizing (doing its job) and nothing to pay attention to. Yet it’s a reminder that trends can trigger comparisons for people.

In your most recent endeavor, Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys, you spent time learning about boys and their body image. What inspired you to change your focus from girls to boys and body image, and what did you discover that either matched or didn’t match your prediction?

Charlotte: When I started to work on The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless, I always intended to write a companion book for boys. I felt it was important to write books for boys and girls separately because these resources are intended for tween and early teen readers who are likely going through puberty. I wanted to describe puberty and other gendered experiences relevant to youth. But, I always knew that body image was not just a female issue. Some of my first studies (journal articles) in the early 2000s included a focus on both boys’ and girls’ body image.

What surprised me in talking to boys was the disconnect between their understanding of body image and their behaviors. They so often had body image concerns and acted on these concerns—lifting weights or altering their diets—but conceptualized “body image” as a “girl issue.”

Alli: That makes sense to me. When we look at what the media spotlights, body image looks like it pairs mainly with “feminine.” And yet, body image issues affect people of all genders.

I’m glad you wrote to speak to younger ages. I remember when I was writing MeaningFULL: 23 Life-Changing Stories of Conquering Dieting, Weight & Body Image Issues, and I was researching body image in young people, I felt sad to learn that 3- to 5-year-olds were speaking in body dissatisfaction language. Granted, they may have been parroting what they heard older folks say. However, the data shows that many identified certain body sizes or shapes as more valuable than others by age six. Sure, that keeps the diet and fitness industries flourishing with lifelong customers, but yikes!

How does body image manifest differently between young girls and boys? I think we know a lot of the ways the body dislike shows up for girls, as the female body has been objectified and described forever. Although it’s more subtle, young boys get body expectations thrust on them, too.

Charlotte: Oh, boys feel the pressure of body ideals as well! Boys are told they need to be lean but also muscular, which is not an easy combination to obtain. And, it’s not just that they need to make themselves bigger (i.e., muscular) literally but also figuratively. Idolized men are depicted as larger-than-life superheroes. Add to this the fact that boys are not socialized to develop the vocabulary to articulate their concerns about body image (or mental health more generally), and we end up with a lot of boys and men that are dissatisfied with their bodies but don’t know where or how to talk about it. In contrast, girls experience body dissatisfaction but do tend to have more of a vocabulary to discuss it. Of course, this isn’t to say that girls’ conversations about their bodies are always healthy or helpful, but at least they are socialized to appreciate that it is acceptable to have the conversations.

Alli: Charlotte, what do you wish all parents knew about body image? Let’s close this post with three points we’d like to offer for consideration.

To parents (and when we say “parents,” we mean anyone in the role of caring for and raising a young person):

No parent has to be perfect about any of these to make a positive difference. Small and thoughtful changes matter (e.g., not commenting on others’ size, build, or weight).

Our body image affects not just our sense of self but our interactions with others and our mental and physical health more broadly. Creating a positive body-image home can have far-reaching benefits for the whole family.

This post is for informational purposes and not a substitute for therapy or professional advice.

Alli Spotts-De Lazzer, MA, LMFT, LPCC, CEDS-S, is the author of MeaningFULL: 23 Life-Changing Stories of Conquering Dieting, Weight, and Body Image Issues.

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